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Centre provides comfort zone

By Andrew Humphries

When Graeme Sutton and Andrew Shearer-Cox walk past the large stained glass window installed in the Bev Pratt Chaplaincy Centre in Ballarat, they are given a daily reminder of just how important a chaplain’s role is.

The stained glass window, featuring an image of Jesus holding a lamb on his shoulder, has come to represent a great deal to the Presbytery of Western Victoria’s chaplaincy committee chairperson.

Taken from the Book of Isaiah, the image references Jesus as a shepherd, gently looking after his flock and “carrying them close to his heart”.

It is, says Graeme, the perfect embodiment of the sometimes difficult, but always vital, work carried out by chaplains.

“The window, which used to be part of the Burnbank Street Methodist Church and was a second world war memorial, has been shifted to our chaplaincy headquarters,” Graeme explains.

“I’m reminded every time I see it of exactly what chaplaincy is all about.”

Graeme and Andrew might even be called shepherds themselves, as Graeme is chairperson of the Presbytery committee overseeing the vital work carried out by a small team in western Victoria and Andrew is in the full-time placement of chaplaincy co-ordinator.

Little wonder, then, that they had a great deal to be proud about as the chaplaincy centre was officially opened on January 31.

“Yes, it was definitely a proud day for us, partly because of the fact that because of COVID-19 we weren’t able to take over the centre until September, so there were a lot of working bees that, for various reasons, fell to a few of us to get involved in,” Graeme says.

The opening was, he says, the culmination of an eventful journey started by guest of honour Bev Pratt more than 40 years ago.

“It’s definitely a case of ‘from little things, big things grow,” Graeme says.

“The naming of the centre acknowledges the ministry of Reverend Bev Pratt, who was the first Uniting Church and Ballarat Base Hospital chaplain.

“Bev pioneered this ministry of care from 1978 and, in the 40-odd years since, there have been 12 part-time chaplain placements to the base hospital, Lakeside Psychiatric Hospital, Queen Elizabeth Geriatric Centre and a community-based mental health facility.”

Graeme says Bev, who retired in 2000, was the obvious person to be honoured with the centre’s name, even if she was a little unsure about being the centre of attention.

Chaplaincy three

Graeme Sutton and Andrew Shearer-Cox lead a team of dedicated chaplains offering support throughout western Victoria.

“We did have a number of conversations with Bev around the honour, but she was very reluctant,” he says.

“However, I basically said to myself I wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

“What I said to Bev was that it’s because of what you have planted that we now have what we do today.

“I think I used the analogy that she had planted the seed for all this with her early work and what we have now is an oak tree.

“What that seed has grown into is a fulltime, expanded ministry that is, to a very large extent, self-funding.”

Not surprisingly, Graeme says Bev has been an inspiration to numerous people over many years.

“She has brought a wealth of experience to the role and I think the fact that the hospital appointed her to the role of chaplain is a testament to her sensitivity,” he says.

“In terms of the presbytery she has been strong in reminding us that the role of presbytery is not just ministry in congregations, it does need to have valid ministry in some of the institutions, including hospitals.

“(She recognised that) chaplaincy ministry involved (tending to) very faithful Uniting Church people who could no longer come to church or had been placed in aged care homes.”

In establishing the chaplaincy centre, co-operation has been the name of the game and, as a number of congregations in the Ballarat region have closed, their assets have been put towards the chaplaincy program and the role of its co-ordinator.

“As congregations in Ballarat closed, each decided to apply their property sales proceeds to the healthcare chaplaincy and so the interest from these funds now ensures the continuity of the chaplaincy co-ordinator placement,” Graeme says.

However, the closure of the Wendouree congregation in 2019 presented another challenge, as a new headquarters needed to be found to allow chaplaincy work to continue.

Negotiations then commenced around using the manse attached to the Brown Hill Uniting Church and, two years later, Graeme is pleased to say that the Bev Pratt Chaplaincy Centre has everything needed to ensure those requiring assistance are fully supported.

“Discussions between the chaplaincy committee and Brown Hill led to them gifting the property to the presbytery as the home for the chaplaincy ministry,” Graeme says.

“Wendouree Uniting Church on its closure then gifted whatever furniture and equipment that might be needed.”

The centre now features a chaplain co-ordinator’s office, training room, interview room and chapel, while a guest bedroom has been established to provide accommodation for those from outside Ballarat attending hospital appointments.

With the centre now operating and fully functional, Graeme says the chaplaincy ministry, through its team of well-trained assistant chaplains and volunteers, is well placed to continue serving the people of western Victoria for many years to come. “Chaplaincy has adopted two phrases as our logo and they are  ‘a companion on your journey’ and the other one is ‘when you’re far from home’,” Graeme says.

“So the message is that we are still your church, even if you are in Ballarat hundreds of kilometres away from your support groups.”

More information on the ministry can be found here

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